Unrest spreads around Iraq as crackdown on Shiite militias rages

Other News Materials 26 March 2008 12:26 (UTC +04:00)

(dpa) - Clashes between Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters in Iraq's southern city of Basra raged Wednesday for the second day as unrest spread to other Shiite cities and parts of Baghdad.

Heavy fighting broke out in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, as Iraqi ground forces backed by US air and ground support launched a large-scale operation Tuesday to break the grip of Shiite militias and criminal gangs controlling the city.

Nearly 30,000 Iraqi army and police forces are involved in the operation, which is directed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is the general commander of the armed forces, according to media reports.

Iraqi troops backed by helicopters have engaged in pitched battles with Shiite fighters since the early hours of Wednesday in many parts of Basra, witnesses told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Life in the city has come to a standstill with shops and markets closing and power cuts throwing it into darkness, witnesses said.

Fighters and troops control the streets.

Basra, which until 2005 enjoyed relative peace, has fallen in the thralls of rival Shiite militias, mainly Mahdi Army, the Badr Organization and another militia controlled by Islamic Fadila Party.

The Mahdi Army, which is loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is pitted against Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Fadila militia.

Although the government said the offensive was to root out "outlaws" in the city, Mahdi Army said its members and strongholds were targeted.

Its leader, al-Sadr, has called on his followers to start a campaign of civil disobedience across the country.

In southern cities, al-Sadr's followers were seen carrying copies of the Koran and olive branches and chanting slogans against foreign occupation.

Curfews have been imposed in the southern cities of Kut, Hillah and Amarah, where the al-Sadr political group enjoys a wide popularity among the poor and uneducated.

Clashes have spread to Baghdad's Shiite-dominated districts, mainly al-Sadr City.

The intensity of the fighting kept many people home. Schools and shops closed as security checkpoints were set up.

Al-Sadr City, the stronghold of Mahdi Army, was cordoned off by Iraqi troops backed by US units, media reports said.

Sadrists say the offensive is aimed at its members and innocent civilians. The government said in a statement it was pressed by its duties to support the local government in Basra in restoring stability and imposing the law.

The US mounted two large-scale offensives against Mahdi Army fighters in 2004, which led to mayhem and violence across Iraq.